WASHINGTON – The number of Islamic terrorists has grown since the U.S.-led war in Iraq, say portions of the National Intelligence Estimate, proof enough, say Democrats, that the United States needs new leadership in Congress.
A classified portion of the NIE, written in April, says different groups and strains of anti-Western Islamic terrorism have emerged since the war began in March 2003, and Al Qaeda is far from alone in planning and plotting to harm Americans and American interests.
That classified material was published Sunday in The New York Times and The Washington Post. One intelligence official, who confirmed part of the report to The Associated Press, said the NIE represented a consensus view of the 16 disparate spy services in the U.S. government.
The report says Iraq is the focal point for recruiting Islamic terrorists, many of whom no longer believe, if they ever did, that the United States ousted Saddam Hussein to liberate Iraq, but invaded the country only to occupy it as part of a larger effort to dominate the Middle East and diminish the power, visibility and cultural centrality of Islam.
Democrats said the NIE demonstrates that President Bush's plan of pressing onward without a stated end is a faulty strategy.
"Unfortunately this report is just confirmation that the Bush administration's stay-the-course approach to the Iraq war has not just made the war more difficult and more deadly for our troops, but has also made the war on terror more dangerous for every American," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, head of the Democratic effort to take control of the House.
"It's time for a new direction in this country," Emanuel, D-Ill., said in the statement.
"Press reports say our nation's intelligence services have confirmed that President Bush's repeated missteps in Iraq and his stubborn refusal to change course have made America less safe," said Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid. "No election-year White House PR campaign can hide this truth."
But administration officials say U.S. actions before the Iraq war motivated and energized radical Islamic fighters, and on balance, the Iraq war has created an opening for a stable, Democratic Iraq that could one day reduce threats to the region and America.
"When we strike the enemy and when we take aggressive actions, they're going to fight back and we have to recognize that's a central aspect of fighting wars," said White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett. "When you engage the enemy, the enemy is going to fight back."
"We did view Saddam Hussein, like many others did, as a threat. He was somebody who invaded countries," Bartlett added. "The world would not be safer with Saddam Hussein in power and that's something that we have to always keep in perspective."
White House Press Secretary Tony Snow added that the news reports contain nothing that the president hasn't already said, but does ignore other material. The NIE is not limited to Iraq but assesses a variety of factors in addition to Iraq, Snow said.
Snow said the conclusions in the The New York Times and elsewhere came "from blind sources. Obviously, we're not going to go into what the classified report does say, but what we did see in the newspapers yesterday, the substance, is precisely what the president has been saying," Snow said. He added that the leadership of Al Qaeda has "been hit hard; it has become more dispersed."
Bush said on Sept. 5 that "terrorist danger remains" and the broader terrorist movement is becoming more spread out and self-directed. A White House strategy booklet released earlier this month describes the terrorists as more dispersed and less centralized, but still a threat to the United States.
But Bush has also argued that the United States is safer since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, since fighting the terrorists in Iraq keeps them from reaching America. He has said leaving Iraq would make the world less safe.
Bartlett said the president's plan in Iraq involves not just fighting on the ground, but changing the conditions in the Middle East by helping democracy emerge.
"Can we walk and chew gum at the same time? Can we go after terrorists where they are, disrupt plots where they happen while also changing the conditions that caused terrorism in the first place, that caused young men to strap themselves into a commercial airliner and plow themselves into a commercial building?" Bartlett asked.
In a statement issued Sunday afternoon, Bush's national intelligence director, John Negroponte, said, "What we have said, time and again, is that while there is much that remains to be done in the War on Terror, we have achieved some notable successes against the global jihadist threat."
He added, "The conclusions of the intelligence community are designed to be comprehensive and viewing them through the narrow prism of a fraction of judgments distorts the broad framework they create."
But Democrats insist that Bush had misled Americans about Iraq's contribution to the terrorist threat. Rep. Jane Harman, the leading Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee and one of a few lawmakers to have read the classified report, said she agrees with the findings.
"Even capturing the remaining top Al Qaeda leadership isn't going to prevent copycat cells, and it isn't going to change a failed policy in Iraq," she said. "This administration is trying to change the subject. I don't think voters are going to buy that."
"It is abundantly clear that we need a new direction in Iraq by strategically redeploying our troops to fight and win the real war on terror and make our country safer," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. "The American people know it and our military leaders do as well. It's only the Republican leaders who have their heads in the sand, stubbornly refusing to change course and making the war on terror harder to win."
With six weeks left to the congressional midterm election on Nov. 7, the news isn't so much a surprise as another weapon for Democratic candidates seeking to tie their opponents to Bush's widely-disliked strategy.
In New York, for example, Democratic challenger Kirsten Gillibrand pointed to the report and said GOP Rep. John Sweeney "has supported President Bush 100 percent of the time on Iraq, refusing to ask tough questions or push for honest answers."
"Now is the time for a new direction, and real accountability and oversight," she said, then called for U.S. forces to be moved out of Iraq within six months to a year.
But several Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, continue to defend the efforts in Iraq and restate the importance of U.S. troops remaining there
McConnell suggested that the fight in Iraq has stopped terrorists from attacking the U.S. and leaving would only create "a breeding ground for attacks here at home."
"Attacks here at home stopped when we started fighting Al Qaeda where they live, rather than responding after they hit," McConnell said in a statement.
McCain told CBS' "Face the Nation" that if the U.S. were to fail in Iraq, "then our problems will be much more complicated."
Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, however, said he was very concerned about the implications in the NIE and the threat now building in Iraq.
"I think there is a much more fundamental issue in how we respond," he said on a cable news network. "And that is what we do with the Iraq war itself. That's the focal point for inspiring more radical Islam fundamentalism, and that's a problem that nobody seems to have an answer to."
FOX News' Major Garrett and The Associated Press contributed to this report.